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Suspicions of a biased judge lead to reforms to protect a fair legal system

DMD Group, a.s. v. Slovakia  | 2010

Suspicions of a biased judge lead to reforms to protect a fair legal system

Background

In the late 1990s the DMD Group was involved in an important legal claim against other companies, worth almost three million euros. The defending companies were suspected of manipulating at least one public officer to avoid paying their debts.

 At first the claim succeeded in the Slovakian courts. However, suddenly the president of the district court arranged for the case to come to him. On the very same day he ordered that the claim should fail, in a decision which was only two pages long and which could not be appealed.

The DMD Group believed that the judge had deliberately taken over the case, so that he could arrange for it to fail. The judge had an almost unlimited power to distribute cases as he wished, without having to give any reasons. He had singled out the DMD Group case to be heard by himself, and dismissed it in an abrupt decision.

Judgment of the European Court of Human Rights

The European court ruled that when judges control who hears particular cases, there must be clear rules to prevent the abuse of this power.

However, there were no such rules in this case. There had been almost no criteria for why the judge should arrange to hear a certain case, and the judge did not have to give any proper reasons for doing so. As his decision on the DMD Group’s claim was also not subject to appeal, the company could not challenge the judge for being biased.

The European court held that the rules allowing the judge to assign the case to himself had been unfair.  They meant that the right to a fair trial had been violated.  

Follow-up

In 2004 a law was passed to make the Slovakian justice system more impartial. It required the distribution of cases to judges to be completely random, through an electronic system. Exceptions can only be justified in very particular circumstances.